Over the weekend, my stepdaughter Stephanie graduated high school. She walked across the stage at Austin's Frank Erwin Center to wild cheers as many of her friends and family members celebrated the big moment.
I was introduced to Stephanie when she was four, and her brother Matthew was five. Fresh out of a tough experience from their parent's divorce, Matthew and Stephanie weren't exactly certain why I was in the picture. Though I'd fallen in love with their father, at 26, I wasn't exactly sure of things myself. Was I okay dating someone with children? Would they like me? Would it work out?
The first day I met the kids, Tim orchestrated a "chance" meeting where we met at the same restaurant. Tim and the kids arrived on bikes and I sat in my car in a red hooded sweater, excited and nervous all at the same time. The goal was for the three of us to have some time to get acquainted, and to take things slowly. We drew silly pictures on napkins. The kids told jokes. Tim did an amazing job making it all seem effortless. We were all okay.
I started coming around more often, and soon the kids learned that I was more than Tim's friend. The kids were terrific - smart, funny, creative -- but Stephanie terrified me. I didn't know it was possible to be afraid of a 4 year-old, but I was. I remember meeting my girlfriends for wine, and I would talk about how hard it was to connect with her. I was afraid she'd strangle me in my sleep. She seemed to peer at me with certain disapproval. Her dark, serious eyes met mine with doubt and mistrust.
I wasn't patient with this. Kids always loved me! But after time, things got better. We'd sit down for a movie at home and she'd be near my space, open to a little hair patting. If I were reading a book she might cautiously find a spot in my lap. One of my favorite pictures of us is when Stephanie was around 5. We're sitting together eating lollipops. Stephanie doesn't exactly look delighted to be there, but I love it because she's on my lap completely by her own choice. Stephanie doesn't do things any other way. Despite her inner conflict, she was willing to connect, even then. I keep that photo on our refrigerator to remind me of how far we've come.
Tim and I dated several years before deciding to get married. Because our wedding was completely non-traditional, I asked Stephanie to be my maid of honor. Matthew was Tim's best man. Stephanie took her role seriously and did an amazing job keeping me calm, looking beautiful in a pink chiffon dress.
Though the years, Stephanie has met every challenge with a determination I've rarely seen in others. She possesses intelligence that's quietly under the surface; she's never in your face about what she knows, but boy, does she know her stuff. She's most creative when she procrastinates. It's nothing for Stephanie to be awake well after midnight, sitting down to begin a paper or a project. For some, that would be unnerving, but Stephanie thrives under pressure. She's written amazing things at the final hour, studied for tests and aced them, created outstanding artwork, choreographed dances. She's at her best when she's doing things on her own terms.
When boys entered the picture, I did my best to listen and allow her to figure things out. My personal philosophy was to defer to Stephanie's parents for the big talks (convenient, right?), and to be there if she came to me with questions. Except lucky for me, most of those questions were answered one night when our hilarious family friend got tipsy and had a wildly inappropriate birds and bees talk while a pre-teen Stephanie listened on in horror. Here and there, Stephanie would share stories with me about the boys she liked, and when it came time to break up with her first boyfriend, she asked me for advice.
Stephanie was in middle school at the time, and I wasn't sure how I would help, so I gave it my best shot. We went to breakfast together, and sat in a restaurant brainstorming on the best way to break up with a boy without hurting him. I suggested that the standard, "It's not you, it's me," is a terrible idea, as is, "I just like you for a friend." I even Googled break-up techniques, and found an article that said you should be honest without being hurtful, and, when possible, be specific about why you were breaking up so the person knows why things didn't work. It also suggested that you express empathy and apologize for causing pain.
I asked Stephanie why she wanted to break up with this boy.
"I know this is mean," she said, "But he's boring."
We sat and thought about ways to present this information to the poor boring boy. It got sillier and sillier, and finally, we came up with a break-up haiku:
You are so boring.
I have to break up with you.
I am sorry for you.
It did meet all the check boxes: Here is why I'm breaking up, this is what I'm doing about it, and I am sorry. After we quit laughing hysterically, we decided this wasn't the best approach. We headed home. Stephanie asked me to be in the room when she made the phone call. We faced opposite directions of the room, fearful that we'd get tickled and ruin it by laughing. She spoke gently to the boy, telling him that she wasn't sure she was ready for a boyfriend, and that she wanted to remain friends. Afterwards, she cried, and I did my best to comfort her, proud of her for breaking up in a mature manner, but remembering how painful those middle-school break-ups can be.
I continued to watch Stephanie grow into a gracious and kind person. She embraced friends of varying backgrounds, and as a result, grew into a person who appreciates diversity and a wide variety of interests. She excelled in school, quietly making grades that blew us away. And while she didn't completely miss the age of being a sassy teenager, honestly, Stephanie was a great teenager to be around.
And then came Billy, the handsome and kind boyfriend Stephanie met in her school's PALS (Peer Assistance Leadership Students) program. During football season, it was fun watching Stephanie in the stands, dressed in her drill team outfit, cheering for Billy.
A few weeks ago, Stephanie and Billy were in a parking lot, and Billy opened the car door for Stephanie. An elderly woman stopped Billy and commented that she never sees that kind of behavior any more, and how pleased she was that Billy opened her door. And despite my feminist qualities, I must admit that I enjoy knowing that Stephanie has a boyfriend who respects and cares for her.
Weeks before prom, Billy met with Stephanie's drill team director, asking her if he would be willing to cancel practice on a specific Monday, and if she would grant him access to the mat room. The director cancelled practice, and told Stephanie that there was a senior meeting. Stephanie entered the mat room to find Billy holding flowers, and this:
From there, it's been a whirlwind of senior activity. Billy and Stephanie were voted prom king and queen (how cute is that?). From prom to honors ceremonies to graduation activities, Stephanie has had a huge cheering squad of people supporting her success.
I am so thankful to Tim and Stephanie's mother for having such an amazing daughter. And what a great combination of her parents she has become -- she has her mother's beauty and her father's height, her mother's discipline and her father's kind and selfless spirit, and both of her parent's intelligence. I'm so blessed to have been a part of most of Stephanie's life.
Stephanie, thank you for sharing your life with all of us. Thank you for welcoming me as your stepmother. Because of my relationship with you, I was awarded the privilege of learning how to be a parent before I became a biological parent myself. We've been through struggles, fights, awkward silences, some killer road trip singalong sessions, huge laughs, silly dancing moments in public places, and yet, through all of it, we've worked on our relationship, and now it's one of the most important relationships in my life.
I cannot wait to see what your next chapter brings!
(Senior Photo courtesy of Kristi Wright http://www.kristiwrightphotography.com)